Part­ing shot

Now is the time for the Tas­ma­nian devil and many other na­tive species to be of­fi­cially rechris­tened with their Abo­rig­i­nal names, ar­gues MAURITS ZWANKHUIZEN.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - MAURITS ZWANKHUIZEN is a Canberra-based writer and is work­ing on an en­cy­clopae­dia of Aus­tralian species in­tro­duced over­seas.

Giv­ing the Tas­ma­nian devil and other na­tive species back their Abo­rig­i­nal names

NAMES CAN BE as in­ter­est­ing as the an­i­mals they de­scribe. In Aus­tralia they are of­ten evoca­tive and ono­matopoeic, and have evolved from Abo­rig­i­nal terms – names such as: bilby, cur­ra­wong, dingo, quoll, wobbe­gong and yabby.

In re­cent years, I’m happy to say, there’s been a push for even more of our na­tive fauna to have their Abo­rig­i­nal names of­fi­cially ap­plied to them; th­ese are of­ten more ap­pro­pri­ate, and came about through Abo­rig­i­nal ex­pe­ri­ences in­ter­act­ing with them.

Euro­peans ar­riv­ing in the past few cen­turies be­queathed a mul­ti­tude of their own names to th­ese crea­tures, of­ten dou­bling up with an­i­mals from home, us­ing names of un­re­lated species that they were fa­mil­iar with such as mag­pies, robins, cats, bears and moles. Th­ese la­bels of pre­dom­i­nantly English ori­gin are not only tax­o­nom­i­cally in­ac­cu­rate, they also sound rather dull along­side ti­tles such as wal­la­roo and quokka.

Names of Abo­rig­i­nal ori­gin are as en­dem­i­cally Aus­tralian as the an­i­mals they de­scribe and they also pro­vide each species with a well-de­fined iden­tity. Of late, sev­eral species have been rechris­tened – th­ese in­clude the djoon­gari, for­merly the Shark Bay mouse ( Pseu­domys fieldi), and the rakali, pre­vi­ously the wa­ter-rat ( Hy­dromys chryso­gaster).

This is en­cour­ag­ing, but I think we can do much bet­ter, and of all Aus­tralian species, the one that is ma­ligned by the un­kind­est mis­nomer of all is the Tas­ma­nian devil. It is dis­ap­point­ing that no Abo­rig­i­nal syn­onym has pre­vi­ously been put for­ward as a re­place­ment for this.

In their book Tas­ma­nian Devil: A Unique and Threat­ened An­i­mal, authors David Owen and David Pem­ber­ton listed some names from Abo­rig­i­nal lan­guages recorded by Euro­peans soon af­ter coloni­sa­tion – th­ese in­cluded: tarrabah, poirin­nah and par-loo-mer-rer. Spellings vary and other ver­sions in­clude tardiba and purin­ina – this lat­ter vari­a­tion is the one that has al­ready gained ac­cep­tance among some Aus­tralians.

‘Purin­ina’ was the name cho­sen for the Tas­ma­nian devil by the Palawa kani project, cre­ated in 1999 with the aim of syn­the­sis­ing the ves­tiges of Tas­ma­nian lan­guages for use as a lin­gua franca and as a key­stone for Abo­rig­i­nal iden­tity. Purin­ina: A Devil’s Tale was also the ti­tle of a 2007 chil­dren’s book about devils by au­thor

Christina Booth.

I think it would be a very fit­ting trib­ute to now-ex­tinct Tas­ma­nian lan­guages if at least one of their words be­came im­mor­talised in com­mon par­lance, and it would do won­ders for the rep­u­ta­tion of a species, cur­rently dubbed with a name linked to a de­monic mytho­log­i­cal fig­ure.

As with Aus­tralian land­marks and na­tional parks that have been given back their Abo­rig­i­nal names, I would ex­pect the English name to be used in tan­dem for a while, grad­u­ally di­min­ish­ing over time, while re­tain­ing its his­tor­i­cal and so­ci­o­log­i­cal value. Un­for­tu­nately, there’s noth­ing to be done about the species’ equally un­ap­peal­ing generic name, Sar­cophilus, mean­ing ‘flesh-lover’.

As sup­port for re­nam­ing grows, I be­lieve that even­tu­ally many na­tive Aus­tralian an­i­mals should be ac­corded the Abo­rig­i­nal names once used more widely. Hun­dreds of birds with clum­sily hy­phen­ated names such as mag­pie-lark, cuckoo-shrike and quail-thrush would ben­e­fit from re­nam­ing. For ex­am­ple, the brush tur­key would be re­born as the gweela, the grey shrike-thrush as the kood­e­long, and the malleefowl as the lowan.

The mag­pie cer­tainly de­serves a name as lyri­cal as its song. Con­sid­er­ing it’s a wide­spread species in a land of many hun­dreds of Abo­rig­i­nal lan­guages, there is no short­age of op­tions to choose from. Per­haps a com­mit­tee of ex­perts, work­ing along the lines of the Palawa-kani project, could de­cide, although per­son­ally

I’d choose the Nyun­gar ‘cool­bardie’.

I hope that one day we might all sound as mu­si­cal as the wildlife, as we walk through the bush and point out gweela, kood­e­long and cool­bardie. And in Tas­ma­nia, if we’re very lucky, we might even be for­tu­nate enough to spot the beau­ti­ful purin­ina.

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